The highs and lows of male-to-female TV recasting

With Lucy Liu taking on the role of Joan Watson in CBS’ Sherlock Holmes series, Elementary, we look back at the history of casting women in previously male TV remake roles…

Ours is the age of ‘making it your own’. In a time when familiarity and brand recognition trump untested ideas, today’s artists have only a narrow corridor of originality in which to operate. Their guiding principle in that constricted space is to make whatever it is they’re recycling their own. Fashion magazines thus cheer celebs for using canny accessorising to make a ‘look’ someone else designed their own. Karaoke talent show hopefuls are lauded for rendering classics unrecognisable with tremulous vibrato and performing toe-tappers with such tempo-slowed, wet-eyed mawkishness they could transform the Go Compare song into fodder for a funeral playlist.

Indeed, so keen was Sue Vertue, the producer of Sherlock, for CBS to make its modernised Holmes series Elementary its own, she instructed the network to do so under threat of legal action.

Duly cautioned, CBS retorted with a list of differences between the two shows that they’ve been on-message about ever since. Elementary’s set in New York, not London; it’s about a recovering drug addict in an okay coat, not a cheekboned sociopath in a fantastic one; Sherlock’s dad, and not brother Mycroft, will play a key role; and most making-it-their-own of all, John Watson is now Joan Watson, a lady version of Holmes’ medical doctor sidekick.

The most positive reactions to CBS reorienting Watson’s gender in Elementary are apathetic at best, the general feeling tending towards the unimpressed. Many seem to share the view of the wonderful Louise Brealey (Sherlock’s Molly Hooper), who, in a recent Radio Times web-chat, dismissed the idea as “nonsense”. (Incidentally, Brealey gave a similarly pithy rebuttal to the idea of Steven Moffat’s supposed misogyny in the same web-chat, though she reached for a slightly less child-friendly term to express that opinion.)

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Lucy Liu’s Dr Joan is by no means the first TV character recast from male-to-female. She’s not even the first incarnation of a female Watson, as we’ll find out. From Battlestar Galactica to Red Dwarf, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers to Rupert Bear, making previously male roles female is a decades-old TV trend, but one with varying rates of success.

Let’s start with the quadrant chasing. Perhaps as a result of the focus groups we’ve come to treat as the sibyls of the modern day, many are the children’s TV characters who, on their journey from book to screen, or from the last century to this, underwent a sex-change.

Those of you with kids or serious cases of arrested development may have noticed that Rupert Bear’s Pekingese pal Pong Ping is sporting a different gender and a slightly new name these days. One of a number of changes made for the 2006 CGI Rupert Bear, Follow the Magic… series , two of Nutwood’s sensitively named Chinese residents – Pong Ping and Tiger Lily –  were conflated into the character of Ping Pong, a female Pekingese with a penchant for casting magic spells. It doesn’t stop there, Freddy the Fox’s twin shocked the Nutwood community (probably) by going from Ferdie to Freda for the new series.

The Rupert Bear sex swaps go some way to rebalancing the Smurfette principle at work in many children’s TV shows from days of yore. Young girls in the Rupert audience no longer had only the mums and that frumpy pleated-skirt-wearing otter to represent their gender, but instead a much wider choice of character on whom to hitch their wagon (and let’s face it, nag their parents to buy the toy versions of).

The same thing happened with imperceptible effect in a number of kids’ shows, including the animated 1990s The Animals of Farthing Wood series, which transformed the book’s Owl, Weasel, and Adder from male to female by dint of a few pronoun shifts in the script. Similarly, when Japanese Sentai series Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger was reimagined as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, the male Tiger Ranger was given a female remake to become the Yellow Ranger, while the new version of Captain Scarlet’s Lt. Green went from Seymour to Serena to even out the gender split.

Moving away from kiddiewink viewing, where gender swaps seem more about evening up representation and merchandising potential than they are character or plot, one name looms large as probably the most successful example of male-to-female TV recasting around. That name? Colonel-punching, cigar-smoking, hard-drinking Viper pilot, Kara Thrace, aka Lieutenant Starbuck.

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Played by Dirk Benedict as a Han Solo-style charmer in the original Battlestar Galactica, when it came to Ronald D. Moore and David Eick’s reimagined series, Katee Sackoff was cast in the role, and for many, became the definitive Starbuck.

The pair may have shared a haircut, pilot skills, and an ersatz father-child relationship with Commander Adama, but Kara Thrace wasn’t just a gender-switched version of the original Starbuck. The original was, according to Benedict, a flirtatious, loveable rogue “…without an angry bone in his womanising body”. The reimagined Starbuck was nothing of the sort. She was damaged, sometimes unlovable, and very often angry.

In a 2004 Dreamwatch article so regressive it makes Jim Davidson’s online rants look measured and reconstructed, Benedict blamed political correctness gone loopy for the decision to cast a woman as Starbuck, saying that “…40 years of feminism have taken their toll. The war against masculinity has been won. Everything has turned into its opposite”.

On and on Benedict bleated, his decent points about the depressing culture of remakes and reimaginings drowned out by complaints that we no longer live in a golden age of men being men and women being women, concluding that, “Hamlet does not scan as Hamletta. Nor does Han Solo as Han Sally. Faceman is not the same as Facewoman. Nor does a Stardoe a Starbuck make. Men hand out cigars. Women ‘hand out’ babies.” Sheesh, Face, and we thought you were cool.

By creating Kara Thrace, Moore and Eick gave their series a complex, Ripley-type whose gender rarely had much to do with her story. The same went for the show’s other women characters, who – Baltar’s noir femme fatale No. 6 aside – were more or less allowed to get on with their lives as pilots, engineers, communications officers, or sleeper cylon agents without chatter about their sex. Starbuck was a unpredictable mess at times because she was a unpredictable mess, not because she was in possession of ovaries. Laura Roslin’s fitness for office was only ever questioned on grounds of health and nutjob religious snake-visions, never on gender. 

Though ever in the shadow of Starbuck, Grace Park’s Boomer was another successful male-to-female new Battlestar transition. Between nabbing Herb Jefferson Jr’s part as Boomer and playing a lither version of Det. Kono Kalakaua in the new Hawaii Five-O, Park has gone on to make something of a career taking on formerly male TV roles.

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This being entertainment-land, a place where Jonah Hill-types are regularly paired off with beauties, the female equivalent of Hawaii Five-O‘s Zulu turned out to be teensy, bikini-friendly Park rather than an actress more physically similar to the original role. What does that tell us about male-to-female TV recasting? That the eye-candy factor is not insignificant (though admittedly, perhaps not in the case of Rupert Bear).

Sticking with sci-fi, but moving towards the comedy end of the spectrum (though that’s debatable if you’ve seen the pilot), is the US Red Dwarf remake. Attempted once with a full-episode pilot, and then again as a shorter promo reel that replaced Hinton Battle’s take on Danny John-Jules’ Cat with a slinky oversexed female version played by Deep Space Nine’s Terry Farrell, the remake never get off the ground. Perhaps not enough of the Farrell-as-Cat Red Dwarf was made to properly judge the decision, but the sexual tension telegraphed between Lister and Cat in what online clips are available is enough to make anyone grateful this was nipped in the bud.

Still in comedy, The Golden Girls Bea Arthur played a female version of Basil Fawlty in 1983 US sitcom Amanda’s By The Sea. The show may have run to almost as many episodes as Fawlty Towers, but failed to channel the peculiarly British humour of the original series and was cancelled after four months.

It should be said though, that the gender of TV comedy heavyweight Arthur had not a fig to do with the show’s failure, which was more down to UK-to-US translation (much as MTV’s decision to replace Skins’ Maxxie with female Tea in its now-defunct remake had little to do with why it didn’t succeed).

All of which leads us back to Ms Watson. Lucy Liu’s Joan isn’t the first female Watson, that honour (if memory and search engines serve) goes to Joanne Woodward as Dr Mildred Watson in 1971 comedy feature They Might Be Giants. Not strictly a version of canon Watson (or a canon Holmes story for that matter), Woodward played a psychiatrist treating an eccentric convinced he was Sherlock Holmes in the mostly charming, whimsical pic.

The first female Watson on CBS however, was Gossip Girl’s Margaret Colin in the 1987 TV movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes. The idea was later reprised by 1993 TV film Sherlock Holmes Returns, which shares a number of plot similarities with the earlier CBS film, though Holmes’ female sidekick doesn’t go by the name of Watson.

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If you’ve not seen 1987’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes, then its premise may well knock your socks off. In it, Colin plays Jane Watson, great-granddaughter of Dr John Watson, and inheritor of the family’s detective agency. A cash-strapped Watson (think Cybil Shepherd in Moonlighting, all volumised hair, white skirt suits and shoulder pads) travels to England in the eighties to see to the sale of a family property.

Whilst there, she follows instructions to a concealed basement and momentarily stumbles into a Hammer horror. Gas lamp held aloft, white nightie fluttering in the breeze, Watson carries out some Frankenstein-inflected science, pulling levers and turning ratchets until a handy sign moves from “Freeze” to “Thaw”, and lo-and-behold, a recently defrosted 1901 version of Sherlock Holmes emerges from beneath the ground.

Infected with bubonic plague by James Moriarty’s dastardly brother James (not big on imagination, the Moriarty parents), Holmes cryogenically froze himself until there a cure could be found, which is where our heroine Jane Watson came in. From thence on, the duo speed through all the standard “A horseless carriage!” stuff, and set about solving a case. How CBS could possibly hope to top that with Elementary remains to be seen. 

Elementary‘s creators have stated that they’re not aiming for a romantic relationship between their Holmes and Watson (a line of thought covered well enough by the rich and varied Holmes fanfic, which has more balls both figuratively and literally in its portrayal of sexual attraction between the detective and his sidekick). Instead, lead writer Rob Doherty has said he wants the series to ultimately focus on the pair’s developing friendship.

So, will Elementary‘s gender shift work? If Judi Dench’s M, Katee Sackoff’s Starbuck and the Yellow Power Ranger can do it, who knows, perhaps there’s hope for Joan Watson yet?

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